Archive for June, 2015

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words Pt 2

June 27, 2015

There are children everywhere. More than half of the 60 000 refugees who have flooded into this camp in recent weeks are children. Some have come alone; some as young as five.

They scamper after us. Intrigued by the camera crew – the videographer is tall, towers above the rest of us, he wears a panama which elevates his presence further. He engages with the children with grace, stooping to their height when he speaks to them. They trail him excitedly; a Pied Piper line straggled behind him.

Later he instructs me on how to interview two small boys to camera.

Stick to my side, he says, so that they don’t need to work to watch your face.

And get down, he urges, get down to your knees so that you are level with their faces. I sink and kneel on red dust and begin my questioning.

This is the hardest bit. Untangling untold trauma. I battle to maintain professional dry-eyed poise when they tell me about the loss of their parents, murdered by militia.

I struggle almost as much when they tell about their aspirations, to be doctors, teachers, journalists, to go to London, New York, to see the world.

I expected to fight tears as they recounted nightmares. I didn’t expect to have to do so when they told me of their dreams.

I say to the crew, ‘that’s enough now, they’ve done well, that’s enough now’.

Where is this resilience grown? I see it in smiles and hear in voices that question me in Kiswahili, French, English as the children try to find some common ground to connect. I watch it in toys they have fashioned from nothing: a truck created from wire with little wooden wheels, ‘did you make that?’ I ask the child towing it. He nods bashfully.  It’s a perfect piece of engineering, observed to tiniest detail. A little boy, his hair patchy and his scalp scaled from malnutrition, clutches an almost perfectly round football made from paper and string. Another holds a kite cast of scraps of plastic sheeting. When the wind tosses it skywards, his head tips back and he laughs up into the blue.

Where is this resilience born? And what sustains it in the face of such horror?

We interview a young mother. Her toddler objects to our intrusion and howls. The crew tells me that sometimes long lenses frighten small children – for they prompt terrifying recent memories of the barrels of brandished guns. The mother is torn, needing to tell her story and wanting to shush her child. A little girl of 8 or 9 steps calmly in and scoops the crying baby up. He is hushed immediately. I turn to motion thanks and she smiles, a beatific smile, white, white teeth, a smile that touches her eyes. I give her a thumbs up and mouth, ‘asante’. She returns the gesture.  And I smile back.

But inside I weep.


A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words Pt 1

June 21, 2015

I ought to be in bed.  I have been up at five every day for a week.

I readied myself. Soaked in a bath up to my chin, so that the suds blushed pinkly as the water rinsed deeply engrained red, red earth from my skin, my hair, beneath my nails.

I tried to watch mindless television. Eat a bowl of pasta, post prandial carb high guaranteed to have me nodding off on the sofa in no time. Normally.

But my week hasn’t been normal. Thoughts jangle and nag and tug and pull. I cannot settle. I haul my laptop from my desk and sit on the floor in front of the fire where the dogs normally curl. They’re briefly indignant to be ousted but return to rest heads upon my lap as I tap.

We debated this in the car one day on the way to the camp – the boys with their cameras and I: which tells the better story – an image or a narrative? A picture is worth a thousand words, they said. I concurred. Because I was outnumbered. But now, now home, I still struggle to find the right ones. The right words to do justice to a big story.

Can I paint the scene with language?  Select each word – a thousand of them – as the artist does his colours? Carefully. Pause. Stand back. Consider my work?

The camp is in the middle of nowhere. A three hour drive on a dirt road from a town flung so far to the west of Tanzania that it almost drops off the map into the great lake that spills all around.  An aid official tells me, ‘governments are not known for granting the best land to those that seek refuge from violence in their own countries. They must make do with what they’re given’.

So we drive towards the middle of nowhere where the skinny earth is ribbed with gullies gouged by rushing rain during the wet,  and where the miombo forests dwindle because humanity has needed to swarm through here before and people need food and fuel and the wood was there.

The land cruiser we are in kicks up dust.  Great suffocating plumes of it. We are tightly packed. Six of us in all, with filming paraphernalia for the boys piled high, cameras, tripods, reflectors, lights. And a satchel, a Dictaphone, and a hat for the pretendwriter.  Vehicles drive with their lights on. It’s two hours past dawn but the dust chokes visibility dangerously.

We know where to turn off for the camp. It’s well marked, this place, this home to 100 000 homeless; signs jostle for attention, as if pushing the other out of the way to be first in line. I read only Nyarugusu Refugee Camp UNHCR.

Five miles later and you encounter row upon row upon row of tents, once – and so recently – they were white and emblazoned with the logos of humanitarian rescue agencies. Now they are dredged with ochre dust, like sieved cinnamon powder.  It is quieter than you imagine, normal Africa wakingup sounds; I cannot hear despair. I think I can hear laughter.

Wood smoke from hundreds of cooking fires rises softly to kiss an early morning haze and they embrace as a pall that hangs low and smudges the ends of my view.

And it is as if the ranks of tents march unto eternity.

When the Words are too Small

June 20, 2015

Sometimes the words you need are too small for the story you have to tell.

I’ll try.

We arrived, the crew and I, on the far western edge of Tanzania on a morning brittle with justgone dawn air. Smoke from woodfires rose to mix with low cloud and the two conspired to smudge the edge of a great lake. We only knew it was below us as the aircraft swung in low to land.

We ate chapatis and drank masala chai whilst we waited for our vehicle. It broke the ice. I’d never met any of them before. We recognized one another only because each of us that bundled off that plane seemed prepared for a similar mission. Cameramen are easy to spot; they come with hefty paraphernalia. The pretendwriter only bore a satchel and a hat.

We were headed, once we got going, to Nyarugusu. Because there were stories to tell, films to make, pictures to take.

It is an enormous sprawl of humanity – the Congolese have been here for two decades, the Burundians less than two months, they number more than 100 000 now. There is despair and sadness and untold trauma. And there is happiness and hope and, astonishingly, lives are picked up so that among the dozens and dozens and dozens of tents, there are small businesses being pitched: a tailor, a barber, a sugar cane vendor.

So I asked my questions and I considered story telling strategies with the crew and I slept in alien beds with cheap linen and rock hard pillows, and bathed in a bucket of cold water. (And amongst the delicious chapatis and mugs of masala chai, I ate something bad enough to have me heaving into a plastic bag for an entire afternoon).

I am on my way home now. Tonight in a big, wide, white, soft bed after a steaming power shower. I am returning unscathed.

But for the scar that has seared my soul; the experience that has branded me.

As I said. Sometimes the words are too small for the story you need to tell.

In time I will find better ones.


June 15, 2015

Not long ago I stood on my verandah and screamed. I opened my mouth and howled. Out loud. To the forest and the sky and the silence and the mildly, briefly, astonished dogs. And then I burst into tears.  So much time, so many hours, slipping through my fingers.

I said to Ant, ‘sometimes’ I said, ‘I feel as if my life is passing me by? As if I ought to have more to show for this, for all my time’. Sorry he said. I’m not sure why. It’s not his fault. But I suppose it was a safe thing to say: Sorry. Later, after supper and wine and telly in front of the fire with a contented cat stretched, purring, on my lap and two still faintly nervous dogs at my feet, I said to Ant, ‘is it enough?’ Is what enough? He asked, ‘is it enough?’  I said again, ‘to just be married and raise children?’ What else is there, he asked, his brow creased with bewildered concern. And I smiled, ‘nothing, there’s nothing else’.

But I still worried, worry, that my time weighs too heavily, that I wantonly waste hours which will slide by and into oblivion. I do. God, do I do. I write remotely, for deadlines that help to punctuate weeks, I organize my children. Remotely. Student loans, applications, flights – nagging in the ether dilutes the urgency, ‘I haven’t done it yet, mama, I will though …’ I cook supper. I walk the dogs. I mark time. I make jam. I am afraid to sit still though I cannot articulate why? That I be deemed lazy? useless?  that I think too much? that I go mad.

“We must not think too much,” cries Euripides’ Medea. “People go mad if they think too much.”

But be careful what you wish for. ‘I want to be useful’, I screamed at the sky that day, to the dogs’ alarm as the cat skittered for cover.

A pitch I had forgotten about entirely. Could you do with a writer, I asked, as I ask any number of people in the syrupy anonymity of the ether where it is easy to bluff and feign confidence, never imagining that somebody will demand much more of me than a bit of research, a few words here and there.

And so today – because last week somebody said, ‘actually, yes, we could do – with a writer’ – I found myself bidding Ant and my son, home post grad, goodbye as I was bundled onto a small plane. Normally we’d be sardine-squished in a 12 seater bound for the city and big smoke and sea. Today we were only four; ‘today’, said the pilot, ‘you’re travelling business class’. I smiled nervously. Small plane travelling is not unfamiliar given my dislocated geography of recent years, but it remains uncomfortable; I am not a happy flier. Business class or otherwise. I hunkered down in my seat and dug a distracting podcast deep into my ears and closed my eyes for 90 minutes until shortly before landing so that I mostly missed the wide white empty sky where horizons were dredged with longgonerain dust. Until the sea shore and the city rose to meet us and I hurtled through traffic with a kamikaze taxi driver as the sun collapsed so that buildings were daubed pinkly and street lights began to sputter to life.

A week at work in the Real World.  This is what you wanted; Ant says, but kindly, ‘to be busy, useful, engaged’. But now that I’m here, ready to write, to travel, to accompany professional teams on tough assignments, I’m not so sure. I’m a wife and mum. I know how to cook, to nag, to worry about children who don’t Skype when they promised to. I know how to walk dogs, to tell myself stories in my head, to fill ballooning hours with dreams.

Do I know how to be a Professional? To work with a crew who are my son’s age? Who are used to the harrowing turbulence we must face? It would have been so easy to say, ‘no, sorry, would have loved to but I’m busy that week’ (walking dogs, telling myself stories in my head, dreaming, marking time, making jam …) but this feels like a challenge. I must do this. I must grow and learn and lean and stretch.

I’m more afraid of staying still than not.

I tell my daughters of my assignment. Hat says, ‘oh man Ma, my dream job’. Amelia says, ‘cool man mama’. And later, when I confide in her that I am afraid. Nervous. So far out of my comfort zone as to be utterly alien (except for the words, i keep telling myself, the words will be not be strangers).

She says, ‘we are always afraid before, Mum, never during’. So I will hold onto that for now.